There Will Be a Tomorrow
by Justin de Haas
The Walnut Creek Crawdads get their first California Collegiate League playoff victory in franchise history.
Walnut Creek finished the regular season with a 25-10 CCL record, which is its best since manager Brant Cummings took over the helm in the 2021. The magical season continues for the ‘Dads as they defeated the Lincoln Potters 7-1 in the CCL North Wild Card Game at Monte Vista.
The Crawdads could have clinched the no. 1 seed in the North division with a win on July 30 against the Sonoma Stompers, but the ‘Dads were unable to finish the regular season with a victory. That loss gave Walnut Creek the no. 2 seed and an extra game on Tuesday, rather than waiting until Wednesday. Cummings relied on Walnut Creek starting pitcher Tyler Blair in the win-or-go-home game and the starter got the win on his ledger.
“I just got a lot of confidence right now,” Blair said. “Attacking the zone. Getting ahead. Trusting my catchers [Nico] Button and [Ryder] Helfrick. Keeping it simple I guess… We [Helfrick and I] talked about how we were going to attack the players. Like I said, kept it simple. The curveball was working, so we kept going with that. Working backwards a lot of the time and trusting Ryder. He calls a great game.”
Blair had Button behind the plate in his last two starts, but he continues to pitch well with Helfrick as his battery mate. The righty has allowed six runs in his last 14 innings, but only one of them was earned because of some defensive errors behind him. This was the case again Tuesday with Walnut Creek third baseman Max Farfan’s errant throw to second base scoring Lincoln’s only run, which would have also ended the inning.
This was the only error the Crawdads committed, which was bad for Lincoln’s offense considering that was the only way they could get on the scoreboard. Blair has now pitched five innings in back-to-back games and he was able to hand it off to Walnut Creek relief pitcher EJ McGrew, who shut it down for the rest of the game. McGrew has pitched four innings in back-to-back outings and it was important for the Crawdads to get as much as they could from their two pitchers.
“I want to give my pitchers as much length as possible,” Blair said. “It was great that we got through the game with two pitchers. That saves some pitching for tomorrow, which helps us out. Same thing with EJ. He fills up the zone and attacks hitters. Coach Cummings says it, ‘even the best hitters get out seven of ten times,’”.
The Crawdads did not need much run support with the way Blair and McGrew pitched, but they had plenty of insurance runs thanks in part to Walnut Creek right fielder Brian DuRoff. The right fielder hit a solo shot off Lincoln starting pitcher Craig Schmich to take the lead in the fifth inning. Schmich was coming off his best performance of the summer when he struck out ten Prune Packers in Healdsburg on July 20, but DuRoff was seeing him well with both his hits coming off the starter.
“I think that was either the second or third time I saw that kid [Schmich], so I kind of knew what he wanted to do,” DuRoff said. “He started out throwing a breaker early, right in my wheelhouse and I just dropped the barrel on it. I just backspun it and it kept going. I thought it was going to stay in, but it was nice to see one leave the park for a big homer.”
DuRoff produced at the top of the Walnut Creek lineup, but the bottom of the lineup did a lot of damage as well. Walnut Creek center fielder Casey Cummings was consistently hitting in the second spot of the lineup before he was hit by a pitch against Lincoln on July 16, but he played his second game since that incident and notched a couple hits from the eighth spot in the batting order. Cummings and DuRoff were teammates at Chabot College, so DuRoff understands the importance of his fellow Gladiator’s return.
“Missing Casey hurt,” DuRoff said. “We were thin on outfielders. He’s our true center fielder, as true as it gets. Him back there manning the outfield is big for us. Once he went down and I went into the two spot, I think the whole Chabot season I hit two and it was kind of normal. [Walnut Creek second baseman Ryan Ellis] Elly [at] one and me [at] two, so it felt back where I was at. It was nice to see more AB’s and pitches.”
The Crawdads are going to need players like DuRoff and Cummings to keep the momentum rolling when they take on the Healdsburg Prune Packers at Recreation Park on Wednesday. The two teams will meet in the CCL North Divisional Game, where the probable starters are Dylan McShane for the ‘Dads and Pierce George for the Packers.